Journey Through Japan

Day 17, 17JAN2017

Our travels today took us two and a half hours southwest of Kyoto to Hiroshima.

The bullet train ride to Hiroshima was delayed twenty minutes: that’s two days in a row we’ve had a spate of bad luck with trains, nevertheless we enjoyed an extremely fast trip without any further interruptions.

In fact, the rest of the day was absolutely great. When we arrived at the JR Hiroshima Station an English speaking guide went out of her way to explain to us how to use the local tourist bus and mentioned that the use of said bus was absolutely free with our JR pass.

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So we happily hopped on the orange tourist bus and jumped off at the Hiroshima Castle stop before noon.

Hiroshima Castle was the brainchild of Mori Terumoto who endeavored to move his fiefdom’s castle towards the sea. In 1589 the castle’s construction began and then in 1591 he and his family occupied the place as residence.

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Unfortunately the Mori family control of the castle and its surrounding fiefdoms was short lived and they abdicated the residence to Fukushima Masanori following the loss of the Battle of Sekigahara. The Fukushima occupied the site and wanted to turn the entire area into a Castle town, however the Shogun rescinded Fukushima’s power and in 1619 the Asano family moved in.

The Asanos occupied and materialized the castle town for the next 150 years until the end of the Edo period and the transition to the Meiji Restoration – when fiefdoms were abolished and the current prefecture administrative system was implemented stripping lords of their land.

The Castle was part of an entire network of merchants, samurai, farmers, and blacksmiths. The town itself was built atop a hill surrounded by a series of moats which could be destroyed and flooded in the event of encroaching enemies. The place was so well thought out and defended that with the Meiji restoration and the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war, the site was chosen to serve as the military’s headquarters.

Hiroshima sits at a crossroads of several modes of transportation both overland and via sea, making it a fantastic location administratively, economically, and militarily. This proved to be an integral decision for the dropping of the Atomic Bomb in 1945. Subsequently, the Hiroshima Castle and both its ancient and modern military buildings were completely razed during the attack.

In 1958 the castle was rebuilt, however the island’s other buildings remain disintegrated and are marked by the stone foundations.

After the castle tour, Josh and I walked underground through Hiroshima’s Kencho-mae, an underground shopping mall and found yet another okonomiyaki place for lunch. Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima is unique compared to its other Japanese cousins; in Hiroshima they layer the cabbage, pork, seafood, bean sprouts, egg and batter with an additional layer of noodles. Josh opted for udon and I chose soba. We both also chose to add melted cheese to our delicious lunch and Josh further still chose spring onions. While lunch was absolutely fabulous, the smoking traditions of Japan became far too uncomfortably apparent during lunch today.

Interestingly Japanese do not smoke in the streets unless in marked smoking areas and these are few and far between. In fact there are whole zones of cities declared smoke-free and several trash cans even outside these sections tell people to stop smoking. That being said, strangely, smoking indoors is fairly common, and disgustingly it is the most common in restaurants.

Most places Josh and I have eaten where smoking is allowed has a separate room for smokers. In today’s okonomiyaki restaurant, a twelve seater hole in the wall, there was no such section, and it was the server and the cooks, not the diners, who smoked. It was surreal and if my itchy eyes didn’t make me queasy enough, the formerly white curtains that hung from the windows were beyond yellowing in fact they were taking on a down right golden hue.

Although the food was incredibly delicious, the effect on my eyes and throat ultimately cemented in my opinion we’d had enough okonomiyaki for one trip to Japan.

After lunch Josh and I emerged from the underground shopping center at the northern corner of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The entire park is in memorial to the lives lost both immediately after the bomb detonated at 0815 on August 6, 1945, and the subsequent hundreds of thousands of lives lost or affected due to various radiation after effects.

If one visits the numerous sites navigating north to south, as Josh and I did, the first sight you come upon is the Atomic Bomb Dome.

The A-Bomb Dome was nearly at the epicenter of the Atomic Bomb’s detonation. The bomb exploded 600 meters above Hiroshima, destroying the city in a matter of seconds. Formerly the Industrial Promotion Hall, the remains serve as a stark reminder of the day the first ever atomic bomb was used in warfare.

It’s scraggly iron skeleton and dilapidated walls eerily beckon the passerby to stop and contemplate. Although the building has been at rest for over seventy years, it’s scared remains appear to shout and cry and the entire image can’t help but evoke emotion from the viewer.

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In aftermath years of the war various opinions were propositioned as to what to do with the remains: bulldoze it to do away with the reminder, or memorialize it to serve as a harrowing example. Obviously the latter option was chosen and I believe it serves its purpose.

There were a handful of protesters in the park requesting both Josh and I to sign petitions addressed to the United Nations: their intention to eradicate nuclear weapon arsenals the world over. Although a valiant idea, I chose not to sign the paperwork.

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We continued our stroll and Josh was approached by an incredibly sweet young lady who without a word of English eagerly passed unto him a beautiful hand drawn picture of the local winter berries. I saw this girl later sitting on a park bench and waved back at her, she presented me with the sweetest smile. It was yet another reminder of how wonderfully kind and pleasant the Japanese people are, and in a place that represents a memory wherein the US perpetrated an attack, I was deeply moved by her happiness.

The next memorial we stopped at was the Children’s Peace Monument. The space-age looking statue hosts a young girl at its pinnacle outstretched and holding a large origami crane. The paper crane symbolizes hope and peace in Japan and this memorial is encrusted with thousands, it not millions of donated paper cranes some large, some smaller than your pinkie’s finger nail, and some artfully arranged to created larger pictures.

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The monument was erected in 1958 thanks to fundraising children. It’s a monument inspired by Sadako Sasaki’s story, a young girl who at the age of two was exposed to the Atomic Bomb’s radiation and ten years later developed leukemia. She eventually passed away due to the complications of leukemia, but before her death she, her classmates, and other girls suffering the same ailments in the hospital ward, began folding paper cranes with the hopes of folding enough to deserve peace and recovery from the cancer.

To this day children across the globe donate folded paper cranes and send them to the memorial.

Following the curving path between two rivers Josh and I happened upon the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound. Within days of the bomb’s detonation over 150,000 people were estimated to have died either from burns, internal bleeding, or being trapped within or hit by rubble. So many people died that there were far too many bodies for all to be recognized and properly buried, thus several unnamed corpses were incinerated and their ashes interred at the Atomic Bomb Memorial Mound.

The last specific memorial Josh and I visited stood across from the Mound and is called the Monument Dedicated to Korean Victims and Survivors. A unique aspect of history is represented with this memorial. At the time of the War, Korea was under Japanese control and several Koreans were conscripted to fight in the military or serve as laborers. In some translations the Koreans are referred to as colonial subjects, in other memorials the translation reads that the Koreans were actually enslaved by the Japanese. Regardless, at the time of the bomb, over 10% of the Hiroshima population were Korean and the death tolls inflicted upon the Korean population represented this ratio.

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Moving back to the center of the island that is the Memorial Peace Park, we stopped at the Flame of Peace, Pond of Peace, and the Cenotaph for the A-Bomb Victims. This collection of memorials in perfectly aligned such that at the northern end, framed by the Cenotaph, is the A-Bomb Dome, and at the southern end is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

In all the park hosts over sixty various monuments, memorials and museums related to the Atomic Bomb. Throughout the park people were in various states of reflection and zen. It is certainly a place that warrants a few days to truly take it all in, and in my opinion, you also need a few hours break to reconvene.

Josh and I wandered into the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims after a few moments of silence at the Cenotaph. This memorial hall is rather well hidden behind a few bends in the path and bushy trees.

The place is mostly underground, and you know you’ve reached the entrance when you happen upon a clock statue permanently stuck at 0815, the hour the bomb detonated.

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The clock is actually a fountain and around the fountain are various pieces of rubble recovered from the epicenter and surrounding neighborhoods. Descending a staircase you walk into a deeply somber and quiet building. Then you further descend into the earth through a narrow hallway that circles around counter clockwise – hence taking you “back in time.”

Along the walls are historical facts about the day of the atomic bomb. At the conclusion of the quiet walk you enter into the Hall of Remembrance. The centerpiece of the hall is a fountain, its trickling noise the only sound one hears while one is encouraged to contemplate and perhaps mourn those who died. The hall’s wall is decorated with a mosaic city-scape of Hiroshima following the bombing – the mosaic is composed of exactly 140,000 tiles, the number of people who perished immediately following the detonation.

Departing the hall there is an interactive area where visitors can search a directory of souls who perished in the bomb. Then you walk upstairs, although you’re still underground, and are ushered into a viewing room.

Perhaps the most heart wrenching and terrifying video I have ever witnessed was presented on the television screens in this room. Documentation of what happened in Hiroshima on August 6th is presented to hall visitors through words and drawings from survivors. Children’s paintings and crayon drawings are cycled through, all depicting similar scenes of absolute horror and chaos. But the words as told by a mother who survived the bombing only to have her fingers and skin melt from her body, her hair matted and fall out, and various other ailments strike her are acted out on the screen. It’s a terrifying account, one that I have yet to ever see in an actual horror movie (although I can’t actually stomach watching horror movies – I readily get nightmares). Speaking of which, listening to this mother’s account was a nightmare in and of itself. She pulls herself from the rubble only to pass the rivers filled with floating dead bodies, to see friends and family carcasses on the streets, she pushed on until her sister finds her and brings her – melting and bleeding to their family home in the country. Thankfully the lady’s children were evacuated to the farm before the bombing, and so the lady manages to see them once again before she starts losing her eyesight. Her husband also arrived home appearing safe from the Hiroshima bombing, but due to internal bleeding he passes away within three days. The account is riveting and deeply saddening. Josh and I departed the memorial hall in complete silence, unable to speak to each other for over ten minutes.

After the Memorial Hall, Josh and I entered the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. This two story building is incredibly well put together and showcases a great deal of facts, artifacts and hands-on demonstrations. I was pleased that for the first time in a few hours I was able to approach the subject of the Atomic Bomb from the scientific and historic stand point and take a much needed break from the very emotional afternoon of memorials.

The museum begins with the immediate facts of the atomic bomb’s effects from 0815 August 6th, 1945 until roughly a week later. There are scaled replicas of Hiroshima circa 1945 with the bomb’s fire, blast, and radiation radius represented. There is rubble from buildings, the tiles blistered and bubbly and furniture with shards of glass that was propelled during the blast phase of the bomb’s detonation.

Very eerie are the marble steps from a Hiroshima bank – the whitewashed walls have a blackened stain on the stairs. This shadow was stained into the marble when the person who was sitting on the steps at the time of the last was entirely incarnated.

Perhaps most disturbing in the museum’s initial displays are those of school children uniforms and photographs taken of burn victims. Hiroshima was a military headquarters and its sprawling city was a target for firing bombing. For this reason, most young children were evacuated from Hiroshima, however school aged children were divided into work forces responsible for destroying several blocks of old wooden homes in the city.

The intention was to create fire breaks, much like in California forests where lanes of trees are felled to create a break where fires, if started, can be contained. On the morning of August 6th, thousands of school children were either already at their designated worksites, or en-route, and therefore were largely outdoors and exposed to the bomb’s immediate effects.

The most interesting section of the museum is that where the effects both acute and long-term, are explained. Fission, which is how the atomic bomb generated most of its power, and nuclear radiation are demonstrated and diagramed. The bomb’s impact on buildings, plants, and humans is deeply depicted, and various donated organs are on display showcasing internal bleeding, the development of leukemia, and keloids (large tissue scaring). It is a museum of curiosities as well as facts and as you walk away you feel as though you’ve learned a great deal.

Both Josh and I thought the museum did a great job of focusing on the facts associated with the bombing. A second segment of the museum is currently undergoing renovations, and so a few display panels representing this segment were on display.

Besides these panels, the real meat and potatoes of the museum was about the bomb and its effects. The panels suggested that the renovated area is where the political and military aspects of the bombing are presented – an entire display panel showcases Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and how he is the first President to visit the city while still in office. There are also displays calling for the end of nuclear weapons arsenals, and speaking to the tough decisions the US made to not only develop the bomb, but also to use the bomb.

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After the museum, in want of fresh air and a good walk, Josh and I departed the museum and headed due west for the JR Sagano Station. Crossing three rivers and a great deal of apartment blocks, we arrived at the station and partook in afternoon tea before boarding our train to Miyajima.

Around the time when Hiroshima became a center of political power under the Mori family, the Shinto Miyajima Itsukushima Shrine was built off the shores of Miyajima Island. Today the island serves as a calming respite from the bustling Hiroshima city lifestyle; its streets lined with lantern-lit lights and deer freely peruse the lanes.

Josh and I boarded the JR Ferry to Miyajima (the price included in our JR pass), and after taking a few photos of the deer as the sunset washed over the island, we walked towards the shrine.

Many may recognize the Shrine’s most famous Tori Gate which appears to float in the water. It was low tide when we walked to the Shrine and therefore we could actually walk out and under the gate, but if you angled yourself just right, the lower parts of the shore and its collected water would reflect the gate to make it appear as though it were indeed floating. This gate is the Tori Gate replicated at the EPCOT Japan Pavilion, and it truly is beautiful.

We hurried back to the JR Hiroshima Station after our visit to Miyajima and grabbed a quick dinner of fried chicken and curry cutlet before boarding our train back to Kyoto.

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Today ended up being an extremely long and emotionally jarring day – sleep was indeed needed.

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